Listening to young voices in a changing climate

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Logo: Young People's Trust for the Environment

By Peter Littlewood, Director

Little girl holding up a global warming picket sign
(Tim Dennell)

What a scorcher! The summer of 2022 was England’s joint hottest, tying with 2018 and reaching an average summer temperature (covering June, July and August) of 17.1C. Four out of our five hottest ever summers in a series of data stretching back to 1884 have happened since 2003, so it’s pretty obvious that climate change is happening.

This summer was also the driest since 1976 - a summer that I vaguely remember, as I was in my first year at primary school, sweltering both indoors and out in my Aertex shirt. That summer stretched out in endless hot, sunny and rainless days, at a point in my life when a week felt like a very long time. I remember the scorch of hot car seats on the backs of my thighs and the feeling of being slowly cooked whenever the traffic slowed, ending the cooling breeze that had been blowing through the open windows. Air conditioning was considered a completely pointless thing in 1970s Britain.

So what about today’s young people? How do they feel about the way the climate is changing and what are their concerns? Towards the end of the summer term, YPTE helped Ellen Wingrove, a student completing her Masters in Global Environment, Politics and Society at Edinburgh University with a survey. It asked young people - specifically those aged 10-11 - about their concerns regarding climate change. Did they feel that their voices were being listened to? What did they think they and the adults in their lives were doing to help? A small selection of primary schools from England, Scotland and Wales took part in the survey.

Large group of school children holding signs for global warming
(John Englart)

Today’s young people are going to be disproportionately affected by climate change in the future. So they should have the opportunity to voice their opinions about the kind of world they want to inherit from the current generation of adults. Among our survey group, only 3% of children said that they were not concerned by climate change and only 5% said that protecting the planet for the future was not important to them.

A majority (57%) felt that their voice was important when it came to climate change, and only 13% thought it was unimportant. But in a significant mismatch, only 18% felt that their voices were being listened to, with 40% stating that they felt they weren’t being listened to. When expanded to a global scale, 30% thought children’s voices in general were being listened to, while 43% felt that children’s voices were being ignored.

The children’s verdict on adults in general was pretty damning, with only 16% thinking that adults were doing a good job of looking after the environment and 60% stating that they were not. At a family level, things got much better for the adults, with 53% of children saying that the grown-ups in their lives were making at least some efforts to improve the environment, whilst an additional 34% thought their parents were making a lot of effort.

We also asked the children to think about the efforts they themselves were making and 66% felt that they were actively doing something to help, 22% said they were making a lot of effort and only 3% admitted to making no effort at all. Almost three quarters (71%) said they would like to get more involved in protecting the environment if they had the opportunity.

Interestingly, the vast majority (95%) felt that protecting the environment should be a high priority for governments, which is something that politicians everywhere should take note of.

Children in a climate change march in front of a large globe
(Backbone Campaign)

So, what can we learn from all this? That young people are concerned about environmental issues in general and climate change in particular; that they don’t feel like enough adults are listening to their concerns; that they want adults to do more, and to be able to take more action themselves. It’s really important that today’s generation of adults takes note of the thoughts and wishes of generations that will follow them.

In order for young people’s voices to really matter, the challenge we face is to ensure that they are equipped with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about climate change, both while they’re still at school and as they grow to adulthood. Children are hopeful, but in many cases anxious about the future and they want to be a part of the solution to climate change. We should be allowing them to have an input into what that future might look like, for them and their children. The more young people feel their input matters, the more inspired they will become to do more to help. And that has to be good news for the climate and the planet.

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Posted On: 18/11/2022

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